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County leader's 'unity' call stirs renewed dissent among districts

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Fresh acrimony has hit Hampshire after county council leader Roy Perry (Con) issued a ‘call for unity’ in which he denounced proposals for both a Solent Combined Authority and splitting the county into unitaries.

Councils have been locked in a lengthy dispute over southern Hampshire districts’ wish to join a Solent Combined Authority with unitaries Portsmouth and Southampton city councils and Isle of Wight Council.

Hampshire has blocked this by refusing to participate and has instead proposed either a county-wide combined authority or county unitary, neither of which are acceptable to the districts.

North Hampshire districts have proposed a Heart of Hampshire combined authority and Basingstoke & Deane BC is exploring becoming a unitary, possibly with Hart DC and Rushmoor BC.

A fresh complication has been the fall of the Island Independents administration in Isle of Wight and its replacement by Conservatives who have opposed proposls to join a combined authority for the Solent.

Cllr Perry said the county had resisted the Solent and Heart of Hampshire bids “because they make no economic sense in creating false divisions – geographically and between authorities”.

He added: “I have written to the Solent leaders explaining why the technical analysis they had commissioned doesn’t work and doesn’t support their case.”

Cllr Perry also rejected new unitary councils “that cut across the county of Hampshire – again because they make no sense financially or for services”.

There was “actually an overwhelming financial and service case for creating a county wide unitary”, he said, though an October public consultation revealed little public support for this.

Cllr Perry said: “We want a concerted effort to work together in the county to make the two-tier system work, and to re-vamp our vital relations with the three unitaries. So I am calling on my fellow leaders to…get back around the table in the interests of all of our communities.”

Fareham BC leader Sean Woodward (Con) said: “The same [devolution] deal remains on the table and could go ahead were the county not blocking it.

“Once the Solent Combined Authority is up and running with Portsmouth and Southampton, with or without the Isle of Wight, the districts would be free to join it.

“I want to scotch the idea that a combined authority means splitting Hampshire. The county council would still be there providing its services.”

Cllr Woodward said he opposed both a Hampshire-wide combined authority or unitary but added: “Roy has let the genie out of the bottle with unitary reorganisation and I am not at all surprised that Basingstoke & Deane is looking at that.”

Eastleigh BC leader Keith House (Lib Dem) said: “It’s a bit of a cheek for Roy Perry to call for unity when its only Hampshire CC that has obstructed devolution.

“If they had joined in I have no doubt this would all have been signed and delivered a year ago.”

Southampton leader Simon Letts (Lab) said the Solent deal was not ‘dead in the water’ and the government was yet to make a decision.

“We have done everything we can to secure a deal and a £1bn investment for the Solent region and if the government reject our proposal then the fault will lie with Hampshire County Council who initially signed the deal last March only to pull out 24 hours later,” Cllr Letts said.

“Rejection of the deal would mean all the money will go to areas like Greater Manchester where mature political leadership has delivered a shared vision.”

This story was updated on 26 January to include comment from Cllr Letts.

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